New analysis: Gender pay gap still hard to bridge

The pay gap between men and women is narrowing, but there is still a long way to go, despite new equality legislation in the pipeline, says Ben Jones

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last month revealed the pay gap between male and female workers in full-time employment has narrowed in the past year. But reward professionals, who must strive for equality in the workplace, still have work to do.

The statistics revealed that although the gap has narrowed slightly, there is a still a pay difference of 12.2% between the sexes, down from 12.6% in 2008. Stephen Overell, associate director at The Work Foundation, said good progress had been made in closing the gender pay gap, but the disparity was still unacceptable. “We have not really cracked the issue of work-life balance as a society yet,” he said. “Certain burdens still tend to fall on women, and discrimination is still alive and well.”

Legislation is on the way to try to address the pay gap in the form of the Equality Bill, featured in last month’s Queen’s Speech. A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which has worked with the government on the bill, says it is vital legislation. “The Equality Bill will make Britain a fairer place,” he said. “We have consulted closely with stakeholders and sought amendments to the bill in parliament.”

Conservatives ‘hesitant’

But some have questioned whether the bill will have time to become law before the general election. “The Conservatives may be hesitant about pay transparency,” said Overell.

Sarah Bell, reward manager at pub chain Punch Taverns, said legislation was more of an issue for reward professionals than for employees. “It is about keeping an eye on any changes in law,” she said. “We have started to look at [addressing the gender pay gap], but we do not have anything concrete yet. Any legislation will be the turning point, but it is not something the average employee is thinking about.”

Highlighting the issue, Employee Benefits‘ own Salary Survey 2009, published last month, showed that the mean salary for men working in reward and benefits is now more than £16,000 above the mean salary for women.
Also last month, research by the British Medical Association revealed an average salary gap of more than £15,000 between male and female doctors.

For all employers, greater transparency around pay is increasingly necessary. Readily-available pay bandings following detailed job evaluations would be a good starting point.

In the public sector, where equal pay monitoring is a statutory requirement, employers are under particular pressure to close the gender pay gap.

But the 2009 CIPD/KPMG Labour Market Outlook survey, released last month, revealed that 43% of employers completed audits only to tick the necessary bureaucratic box rather than as part of an underlying effort to advance gender equality.

Sarah Barnes, policy and equalities manager at Crawley Borough Council, said that despite the council running an equal pay audit every two years, the problem remained. “We know there will be a requirement for public bodies to publish their gender pay gap, but we do not know what that will look like. We brought in a single pay scheme in 2002 which stipulated that everybody in the same job was within the same pay banding. It took us two years to implement it as we had 800 employees and 300 different job types.”

Whether or not legislation helps to kick-start employers’ efforts to close the gender pay gap, the issue of equality seems set to rumble on.